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Lights, Camera, Spend: Tennesseans Boost Hollywood With Film Incentives

Did you enjoy ABC’s “Nashville” series? Good, because you’ll be paying for it to the tune of $8.5 million.

Millions of public dollars — in tax credits and, as of this year, via grants — have flowed into the state’s film incentive program to aid productions such as Larry the Cable Guy’s Christmas special, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and promos for “Monday Night Football.”

In all, Tennessee is on track to fork over $22 million worth of handouts for Hollywood productions that are made in the state, a TNReport review of state records from 2008 to 2012 shows.

“This is one of the most insidious forms of corporate welfare out there,” Trey Moore, with the free-market think tank Beacon Center, said. “It’s hard to argue that this is a good deal for taxpayers.”

To put the amount in context: $22 million could pay for an additional 455 Nashville firefighters or five additional teachers in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties this year.

Tennessee film subsidies

Supporters of the state’s film incentive program say it boosts economic development, spurs job creation and is good marketing for Tennessee. The program is overseen by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Officials point to “Nashville,” ABC’s prime-time soap opera in which a 40-something country star must share the stage with a sassy young starlet.

“The program that’s had the most accolades is the recent film series ‘Nashville,’” Economic and Community Development commissioner Bill Hagerty said during a recent budget hearing.

Bill HagertyBill Hagerty

“The pilot was outstanding,” he said in November. “It still ranks number three in the ratings today, and we’re very optimistic that ‘Nashville’ is putting an important brand on the state and one that’s very positive for us.”

Over the past year, film incentives weren’t just teed up for the show “Nashville,” but to productions such as the faith-based drama “Unconditional,” and “Water for Elephants,” the circus-train romance/animal cruelty flick starring Reese Witherspoon.

Supporters of the incentives say that the program’s front-end money translates into economic benefits for the state, with “Nashville” alone bringing in $49.5 million in economic development. But for most of the program’s short history, the formulas for arriving at such numbers have been kept secret, and it’s still not clear exactly how the $49.5 million is estimated.

See all of the projects that have received public incentives from Tennessee here.

State officials say the program will be more transparent going forward. As of July 1, the state began administering all incentives as grants rather than tax credits — called “spurious” by one study.

There appear to be some benefits to this change, including greater transparency. Under former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who launched the incentive program, many of the presumed economic benefits were closed to the public. Benefits to film companies were in the form of tax credits, and a great deal of tax information in Tennessee is not public under state law.

But now, under Gov. Bill Haslam: “It is a more transparent process,” ECD spokesman Clint Brewer told TNReport. “The collapsing of the tax credit had several benefits, and that’s one of them. By and large everything we do in this department is an open record.”

It’s now easier for smaller and independent film productions to tap into the cash, too.

“The result is that we took a complicated, burdensome process that involved tax credits and a lot of paperwork and streamlined it significantly,” Brewer said.

But critics of the program doubt the benefits from the movies move the economic needle in Tennessee.

“This is just another example of corporate welfare,” said Moore, of the Beacon Center. “It’s rampant across the country when it comes to the film and movie industry, and, unfortunately, it’s hard to identify what’s really coming in the door.”

All these film incentives have Hollywood licking its chops: The Los Angeles-based Screen Actors Guild makes a web page available to all its members showing the film tax and grant benefits available in states across the U.S.

What of all those other states that have taxpayer-supported film incentive programs? Won’t jobs leave Tennessee and head there? Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri all have robust film incentive programs. And Louisiana is the granddaddy of film incentives in the U.S. — second only to California and New York — garnering the nickname “Hollywood South.”

“If giving away money is a good way to create jobs when you’re not getting anything in return, I would have a hard time believing that,” Moore said. “It’s a notoriously fickle industry. There’s no guarantee that even once we give them this money that this is going to stick around.”

It’s not just the fiscal conservatives who question grants to film companies.
The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities conducted a national study on film subsidies and found that “in the harsh light of reality, film subsidies offer little bang for the buck.”

The study found:

+ Subsidies reward companies for production that they might have done anyway. Some makers of movie and TV shows have close, long-standing relationships with particular states. Had those states not introduced or expanded film subsidies, most such producers would have continued to work in the state anyway. But there is no practical way for a state to limit subsidies only to productions that otherwise would not have happened.

+ The best jobs go to non-residents. The workforce at most sites outside of Los Angeles and New York City lacks the specialized skills producers need to shoot a film. Consequently, producers import scarce, highly paid talent from other states. Jobs for in-state residents tend to be spotty, part-time, and relatively low-paying work — hairdressing, security, carpentry, sanitation, moving, storage, and catering — that is unlikely to build the foundations of strong economic development in the long term.

+ Subsidies don’t pay for themselves. The revenue generated by economic activity induced by film subsidies falls far short of the subsidies’ direct costs to the state. To balance its budget, the state must therefore cut spending or raise revenues elsewhere, dampening the subsidies’ positive economic impact.

And while Tennessee officials boast that film subsidies can lead to good public relations for the state, some states’ programs have backfired in the PR department.

Louisiana recently received a black eye when consultants determined the program wasn’t getting the results officials said it was.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Louisiana, for instance, estimates that for every dollar it paid out in tax incentives for film projects over the last three years, it got back tax revenue of 24 cents. Still, the state’s analysis shows that film jobs in the state rose from about 900 in 2001 to about 5,000 now, so although the Big Easy’s state loses money on every job, it presumably hopes to make it up in volume.

Iowa’s film program was rocked by a scandal when prosecutors charged the state’s former film chief with various felonies, including official misconduct over his handling of state film tax credits.

Michigan was hit with some ironic bad press after reporters found that the state had coughed up more than $831,000 in tax dollars for “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Michael Moore’s movie that, in part, is critical of companies that accept corporate welfare.

Tennessee film subsidies by year

Under Haslam, the state has accelerated spending on film incentives, with more dollars thrown at moviemakers in 2012 than in 2009, 2010 and 2011 combined.

“As part of Governor Haslam’s Jobs4TN economic development plan, the entertainment industry was identified as one of the key industries in which the state has a clear competitive advantage,” Hagerty said in a statement last year after legislation was passed giving the film incentive program a $2 million boost.

At the same time, the brass behind the show “Nashville” is not so subtly indicating that if they don’t get additional incentives, they’ll pack up their Dobros and go home.

“The show’s backers are saying additional incentives — the extension of a heightened state reimbursement and other possibilities — will likely be needed to justify the cost of continued filming in Music City,” the Nashville Business Journal reported. “The fact that the show, which has seen ratings drop since its premiere before regaining some ground (in November), has been picked up means there will be a full season for backers to tout and public officials to weigh.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Press Releases

Transparency in Tennessee: Assessing the 107th General Assembly

Commentary by Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, May 3, 2012:

Secrecy seemed to be a common thread running through the session of the Tennessee Legislature that ended May 1. The latest “secret” revealed is that key members of the Legislature met on April 23 at a Nashville restaurant of the session to work out deals on amendments to the governor’s $34.1 billion state budget proposal.

The secret session was revealed in an Associated Press story filed the following day. No one in the Legislature or the governor’s office seemed upset that the meeting was held or revealed in news stories. But a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam did take care to note that no one from the governor’s office participated in the weekend meeting.

Tennessee political reporters and observer s know that this happens near the end of every legislative session in Tennessee. And it’s the reason the State Integrity Investigation, a national project to determine the potential for corruption in all 50 states, gave Tennessee a score of 0 out of a possible 100 on whether the “state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner.”

“There have been secret meetings, I’m not going to deny,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the AP. “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”

Despite a flare-up between Senate and House members over so-called pork barrel projects and efforts by the minority Democrats, the budget passed largely as hammered out during that weekend meeting.

Over all, State Integrity gave Tennessee a C+ for receiving 79 points out of 100 for the transparency of its budgeting process even with that big fat 0.

Secrecy was the major sticking point in another bill presented by Gov. Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which wants to give incentive grants to private companies to bring jobs to the state. In order to perform the department’s due diligence in checking out privately held companies, the state wanted to keep confidential the companies’ identity and all proprietary information. The administration and legislators were unable to reach agreement on confidentiality and the measure did not pass.

On the other hand, public teacher evaluation scores, under a new system developed last year, will remain confidential under legislation negotiated between the governor and Legislature with the Tennessee Education Association.

The bill to amend the public records act was passed quickly and with little fanfare through the use of a “caption” bill, which was passed largely unnoticed in a Senate committee before open government activists had a chance to oppose it. The only relevant element on the caption bill was the reference to “public records” before the rest of the caption was rewritten to keep teacher evaluation scores secret.

Still another bill brought by the administration would keep secret the names of all applicants for the top job at Tennessee’s universities and colleges except for the finalists. The amended bill called for finalists’ names to be announced at least 15 days before the appointment is made and required that officials publicly name at least three finalists for each post.

To find out more about issues of transparency in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

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Press Releases

Veteran Journalist, Former Think Tank Director Tapped to Speak for State Economic Development Agency

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, July 19, 2011:

Award-Winning Reporter, Editor and Publisher to Lead ECD’s Communications and Marking Efforts

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty today named veteran journalist Clint Brewer as Assistant Commissioner, Communications and Creative Services.

“I’m pleased to have someone with Clint Brewer’s depth of experience joining our economic development leadership team,” said Commissioner Hagerty. “As a former business owner and media executive, Clint Brewer will effectively lead our department’s communications and marketing efforts.”

“I’m grateful to Governor Haslam and Commissioner Hagerty for this opportunity,” said Brewer. “Tennessee is one of the very best places in this country to do business, and I am excited to help spread that message.”

Brewer comes to ECD with more than 15 years experience in the Tennessee media as an award-winning reporter, editor and publisher. He was previously at The Tennessean in Nashville as the newspaper’s political editor. He has also previously served as editor of the daily Lebanon Democrat and of Nashville’s City Paper. Brewer started his own company in 2000 where he owned the Mt. Juliet News, a weekly newspaper in Wilson County.

Prior to his tenure at the Tennessean, Brewer was executive director of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a non-profit, free market think tank.

Brewer is a native of Knoxville, Tenn. and a graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He was national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2007-08, where he led a lobbying effort in the U.S. House and Senate to see a national reporter shield law passed. He is a former board member of the Tennessee Press Association, and served as the co-chair of TPA’s Government Affairs committee during the last legislative session.

In his current role, Brewer will lead all communications and marketing efforts for ECD, including oversight of the department’s press and creative services teams. ECD’s Communications and Creative Services division keeps staff, legislators, other state and city departments, local agencies, the media and the general public informed of ECD services, programs and activities. The division also provides strategic communications planning for the department and the coordination and execution of all ECD public events.